In Progress

Dedicated to Pre-Bebop Jazz Guitar

Disclaimer: All of the opinions expressed herein are solely those of Jonathan Stout, 
and NOT the Campus Five or Hilary Alexander

Thursday
Mar202014

Clip-On Mic: Trying Something New in Acoustic Amplification

 

photo by Steve Hwan (and ok, technically that is a Sure SM57 pictured, but you get the idea)

I've been happily using my Rode NT3 for years to mic my acoustic archtop guitars. Being the bandleader, I can demand such a specific solution. Recently I was noticing that even when using the low-profile mic stand I bought specifically for it, it was ruing almost every picture of me playing on that I happened to see on Facebook. Sort of a vain observation, but I never noticed how visually distracting it was. 

If it were just that, I'd live with it, because the sound quality is wonderful. But, on most of traveling gigs for the last couple months, and even some at home, I've found it to be difficult to get any stage volume out of it without it feeding back. It doesn't matter how good the guitar sounded if I can't hear even the slightest bit of it. Plus, even when I was getting some monitor, my acoustic guitar solos always seemed to get buried, even when I leaned in the mic.

Now, I should say the best sounding amplified acoustic archtop I've heard was when I saw the Sweet Hollywiians at Boulevard Music in Culver City, CA. Takashi Nakayama (who you've seen before on the blog) was using a DPA 4099 clip on mic, clipped onto the tailpiece pointed down at the top of the guitar. He told me he had it plugged into a mic pre before an AER amp, which provided a DI out to the house. Unfortunately, I've never had the $500+ to drop on the DPA. 

With that inspiration, I ended up trying something different at a recent gig. The sound guy mentioned he had a "clip on" mic for one of the horn players who was particularly delinquent about playing "on mic." I'm against clip on mic's for horn players, because usually my guys need to be able to "work the mic" a bit to help with balance and shading. Despite using amplification, we do try to keep the acoustic character as much as possible - though with certain rooms and certain sound guys, it's impossible. All that aside, I figured I might try the clip on mic for my guitar instead. 

Audio Technica Pro 35

The sound guy had an Audio-Technica PRO-35, which comes with it's own windscreen, gooseneck and clamp. It doesn't have a power pack inline, so you have to give it phantom power. We played three nights, with three of my different bands. The first night with my Grand Slam Sextet, I didn't use the mic, because I ended up playing my ES-150 electrically all night (which given that the band is clarinet-vibraphone-electric guitar as the leads, i was ok with, despite my hate for electric rhythm guitar). The next night was with the Campus Five, and I alternated between my Eastman 805 for rhythm and the ES-150 for leads and riffs. It was astounding how much acoustic volume I was able to get, and how clear and articulate the Eastman sounded. Because I wasn't slamming the guitar harder to get volume, I was able to play more relaxed and clean, and the tone dramatically improves when you're not throttling the guitar. It was some of the best playing I'd done on acoustic, and it was very satisfying to be heard for once. 

The only problem came when I would swap guitars. Because I had no way to turn of the PRO-35, I risked pointing the mic right at the monitors when I put it down to grab my electric. I figured out what direction to orient the stand and which way to turn the guitar as to not point it right into feedback, Even then, I didn't succeed at that 100%. 

The following night, with our 10-piece "pre-swing" band, the Rhythm Busters, I decided to only play my John LeVoi Petite Bouche selmer-style guitar. I've been trying to find ways to differentiate that band from my others, and changing guitars seemed like a good way to do that. At soundcheck, I was stoked because with the Pro 35 I could get enough stage and mains volume without feedback or bleed to "ride" over top of the band, like a clarinet player might do over a shout chorus, or more importantly like Django did in some recordings where he's the featured soloist backed by a big band (a version of "Moten Swing" comes to mind). Also, since Hilary was not this gig, I decided to substitute the melodies on guitar instead of skipping those songs. By then end of the night, I realized that playing Django-y lead guitar was giving the band a more signature sound, and I that can't think of anybody else doing a Django-led 30's Orchestra. Win-win. 

I should mention that for both guitars, I clipped the gooseneck onto the tailpiece, with the mic pointed down at the soundboard. 

When I got home from the weekend, I set at getting my own clip on mic. The PRO-35 is only around $150, but I noticed that it was decidedly on the lower end of Audio Technica's line. Checking out www.djangobooks.com, I noticed they only carried two higher-end AT's, the AT831B  and the Pro 70. The AT831B has been used by some leading Gypsy players, through usually with a clip hanging on the soundhole. Neither mic came with a gooseneck, though both come with a power pack, so that you aren't dependent on the board for phantom power - of course, both can accept phantom as well. 

I ended up picking up an AT831B on craigslist, and then the AT8418 Gooseneck (which looks identical to the one the comes on the Audio-Technica PRO-35) on amazon, for a total just about $20 more than a PRO-35. I was hoping that AT831B would have even better sound quality, but I was worried that something about the improved quality or response would make less useable (like more susceptible to feedback, etc). Trying it out at home, I was able to get significant volume out plugged directly into a JBL Eon powered PA speaker, and it didn't seem overly susceptible to feedback.

But there was still the problem of how to prevent the guitar from feeding back when moving it around, say when I change from acoustic to electric for a solo. Checking online there were two main solutions: the Pro Co Sign Off  and the Rolls MS111. Both offered "latching" switching, so that I could turn the mic off via footswitch. The Rolls was cheaper, and it could be changed to "momentary" switch, meaning that I would only mute as long you held down the pedal. I can't say I know when that would be useful for me, but whatever. The ProCo was ~$75 and the Rolls ~$50. I went with cheaper Rolls, hoping I wouldn't end up with something junky for my cheapness. The Rolls arrived and it was more than rugged enough. Oh and since I would have to plug the Mic's power pack into the switch via XLR, before running into from the switch to the board, I bought a 1.5" XLR cable from monoprice as to keep things tidy, and not have a ton of excess cabling around. 

I finally used the new mic set up last Wednesday - WOW! What a great improvement over how I had been doing things. I was able to get a ton of volume out of the monitors and never had any problems with feedback. I played some of the best Reuss-style block-chord solos I've played live in a while, specifically because I could hear myself clearly, and could play without mashing my pick into the strings. What a difference! Further, the Rolls switch worked like a charm. It was very easy to mute the mic before switching to my electric. 

My Eastman with an AT831b/AT8418 combo into the MS111 mute switchI have to say after the four gigs - 2 using the PRO-35, and 2 using the AT831B - I'm pretty sure combo of the AT831BAT8418 Gooseneck, and Rolls MS111 is going to replace the NT-3 for most gigs. 

A final step I may eventually take would be to add an XLR A/B Switch after the Rolls. That way I could alternate between two mixer channels, a softer one for rhythm, and a louder one for leads. Even when we have the luxury of a sound guy who could turn up a guitar solo on the fly, it often takes them a couple seconds to recognize that there is a guitar solo going on, and sometimes when the solo is only 8 bars, they miss it entirely. However, because it would be plugged into two channels of the mixer, I would have to make sure phantom power was disabled, because it could damage the mic to receive both channels worth of phantom power.  

Photo by Jennifer Stockert

Also, the last gig we played with monitors, and boy, did I miss having my own monitor. I think I may have to step up and buy a smaller powered speaker, such as the Mackie SRM150 , or the larger Mackie SRM350v2 - because clearly, I need to bring more stuff to a gig....

Well, one step at a time. 

 

Saturday
Mar152014

For Sale: 1998 Ibanez PM20 Pat Metheny Model

It's finally time to sell my first jazz guitar - it's been sitting sadly alone, unplayed for too long. It's a wonderful instrument, but it just doesn't get the playing time it derserves. I got the guitar in the late summer of 1998 at Sam Ash in Canoga Park, CA. It came without a strap button, so the in-house repair guy, Randy, put one on. When he did, I liked it so much, he went and bought the other PM20 that was still on the shelf. It's served me well for many years, but has been since been replaced by more-suitable guitars. I can longer hold on to it, justifying it as a "back up." I've got 3 other arch tops with magnetic pickups, and an extra DeArmond guitar mic if those three go bad. For anyone that is interested in Campus Five history, this guitar was used on the album "Jammin' the Blues" (2003).

It's a great sounding laminate-body, single-humbucker jazz guitar. It currently has D'Angelico Flatwound 13's on it. I recorded a couple demo tracks of it, so you can here how it sounds. The first two tracks are played through a 1999 Peavey Classic 30, with the eq set flat. The third track is played through a 1946 Gibson BR-6 for a bit of breakup. I've done NO after processing of the guitar tone. Everything was recorded with a Blue Yeti straight into Garage Band.

Since this guitar is perhaps more appropriate for later styles of jazz than mine, I've recorded some "style"-copies, trying my best to ape the more-modern styles this guitar would be perfect for. Pardon the ridiculous drum beat behind the 3rd track, I was just looking for a Sco+MMW kind of groove and that was the closest thing I could find.
Also, for a more "swing" sound, just listen to any track of our 2003 album "Jammin' the Blues" (available at www.campusfive.com / itunes.com / cdbaby.com) for a sample of that.

The true color of the guitar is a deep blonde color seen in the wider shots. There are three condition issues, on what is otherwise a very clean guitar. 1) There is a ding on the bass side lower bout, near the bottom of the guitar - right where it would be concealed by your arm. I've included three pictures - so you can see how it blends into the wood on the top at any distance. 2) There's a small finish chip on the back of the headstock. 3) Most of the gold hardware has some wearing-off of the gold plating. The guitar was kept in a gig bag for most of it's life, and the friction of the in-and-out took its toll. Guitar comes with an 1998 SKB Hardshell Dreadnaught Case, that I got when I bought the guitar. 

Guitar is $899. I'd expect shipping to run $40, but buyer to pay true cost of shipping. 

    

 

 

Thursday
Feb272014

Updated Links Sidebar

After forgetting about it for too long, I've updated the links section of the sidebar. I've also added some organization to make it easier to navigate through the list. 

First and foremost, I wanted to mention that www.classicjazzguitar.com - a website that was very influencial on the birth of my swing guitar playing and our band - is now back up and running. It was not functional for a long time, and I only noticed it was back up when I was updating the list. It has a laundry list of important early jazz guitar players, and has a huge selection of solo excerpts from these players. Nowhere else on the web, or anywhere else for that matter, is there a collection of Allan Reuss solos, for example, or Irving Ashby, or Carmen Mastren Solos, etc. Plus many of these excerpts are a bit hard to find: Allan Reuss's solos on "Pickin' for Patsy", "I Never Knew" with Peck's Bad Boys, or "Bye Bye Blues" with the Arnold Ross Quartet feat. Benny Carter, are all mind-meltingly good. 

Other things you should check out:

TK Smith - not only does TK play amazing guitar, but he fabricates amazing Bigsby-inspired guitars and guitar parts, and he posts inspiring clips of vintage jazz, western and country guitar, some of which are of his own fantastic playign. The earlier in electric jazz guitar you go, the greater the nexus between western and jazz guitar, and players like the early Les Paul and George Barnes could easily have been considered to be playing either at any time. 

Elektra Amps - an amazing collaboration between a German, two Dutch guys and an Austrialian, the guys at Elektra are attempted to resurect the sound of the classic Gibson EH-185 amplifer. Being stuck here in America, I haven't yet gotten to play one, but I can't wait!

Studio Slips - custom made equipment covers. I have had two covers made, one for the cabinet of my EH-185, and one for the head of the EH-185 (I carry the head separately to keep from damaging the cabinet). They are really well made, and very durable, and and furthermore, completely customizable. I highly recommend them as a way to keep from abusing your amps and other gear. 

 

Saturday
Feb012014

Bonus videos: "Coquette", "I'm Confessin'" and "Rose Room"

Here's a couple bonus videos I recorded. I'm not going to a whole discussion of each tune, but I didn't want to leave these unposted. Cheers. 

Coquette

I don't really play "Coquette" very often. In fact, if you look carefully, there's a second when the first bridge comes, you can see me waiting to hear where it goes. I just had my playalong playlist on shuffle, and this is what came up. The changes are very, very simple: just I-V7, and back for the A sections, and a "Honeysuckle" bridge (I7-IV-II7-V7). 

I'm Confessin' 

One of my favorite ballads, "I'm Confessin'" is something I often noodle on when I pick up a guitar. 

Rose Room

"Rose Room" has particular significance for the electric guitar, since it's the song that made Benny Goodman take notice of Charlie Christian. 

Saturday
Feb012014

Video: Diga Diga Doo

This time, we visit "Diga Diga Doo." 

Again the set up is my ES-150 through the EH-160, and playing over backing tracks the I've published here and that can be found at www.soundcloud.com/campusfive. 

"Diga Diga Doo" is oe of the first songs I learned when I started learning Swing guitar playing, and it's been a staple of the Campus Five's repitoire since the band's first gig. The A sections are basically a Dminor vamp. Simple chords can be "easy" on one level - there's nothing to "mess up" - but on another level, it's al the more difficult because static chords provide no new stimulus, and it's on you to make something happen, melodically. Here is a PDF: "Diga Diga Doo" (PDF)

click to enlarge

The first four bars of the A section are sometimes played as simply Dminor, but other times there is a line cliche: Dm, Dm/C#, Dm/C, Dm/B - two beats each, repeated twice. Don't feel the need to outline the line cliche - it's just a texture underneath whatever you play. 

As for the bridge, it's another common sequence that can be found in "Swing, Brother, Swing", among others. The sequence C7-F, D7-Gm-A7 feels sort of like a "Honeysuckle" bridge (I7-IV-II7-V7), but dropped a step. I wrote a D7b9 on the leadsheet as a warning to somebody who's not reading ahead that the D7 resolves to a Gminor, rather than a Gmajor. 

Tuesday
Jan282014

Modern Gear for the Vintage Player

I've been gushing about my recent vintage acquisition, so it's time I talk about something everybody can get there hands on: modern gear for the vintage player. When I started playing Swing Guitar there were few options outside of actual vintage, and what options there were still lacked for vintage sound or vintage looks. Now there are several really outstanding options, and if I were starting all over again, and vintage wasn't an option, here's what I'd get.

Acoustic Archtop: The Loar LH-600 ($999 retail) / LH-700 ($1499 retail)

Photo by David O'Brien

I've been an Eastman player for a long time, but I think Loar is really where the action is for the vintage-minded player. Aesthetically, Eastman has pretty much ignored the Jazz-era/Swing-era market, and while I think their guitars are excellent sounding, the Chuck Wayne-70's vibe is a turn-off, plus I think the the steeper cost is just enough of an impediment for players starting out.  

I've come across Loar LH-600's in the wild for sometime now - Katie Cavera played hers subbing for me while I was playing drums on a gig, and our pal Dave Stuckey uses one, and I've played it several times - but the first time that I really got to play one for an extended period was at Lindy Focus, where Michael Gamble lent me his. Since I was traveling with my ES-150, I needed an acoustic archtop, and the LH-600 did a fantastic job. 

Photo by David O'Brien

Like many guitars, the LH-600 really came into it's own with the right strings and a proper set up. I slapped a .013 set of Martin SP 80/20's on it, and adjusted the bridge slightly. The change was immediate and impressive - Michael could hardly believe it was the same guitar. Then again, I've had a proper set up be a game-changer before, and all it does is allow the guitar live up to it's full potential. I played it all week long, and was really impressed with its response. The Loars are parallel braced (unlike the Eastmans which are X-braced), and I think the punchier response works well for rhythm guitar playing. X-braced guitars can sound fuller or rounder, but much of that is lost in a band setting, and the extra fullness can lead to muddiness instead. Especially once properly set up with .013's and the top breaks in, the LH-600 is tough to beat. Man, if these had been available when I started out… 

For the money, and for a player with any mind for vintage aesthetics, you really can't be the Loar LH-600. I've heard the LH-700's are even better, but I haven't played one myself yet. 

Electric Archtop: The Loar LH-309 ($599 retail)

One of the guitar players from Hedgehog Swing in Long Beach, CA, Gage Hulsey, asked me about what I'd recommend for an electric archtop for somebody exploring Charlie Christian-type playing coming from the Gypsy Jazz world. At first I wasn't sure what to recommend, but after a little research, the Loar LH-309 is the pretty clear choice. The specs and construction are as close to a 40's Gibson electric such as a post-war ES-150 or ES-125 as anything being made now. 

I would definitely avoid humbuckers, because I think their tone is really the wrong choice for pre-bebop jazz guitar. Humbuckers just sound too full and clean - plus the higher output and bass response tend to exacerbate the problems when having to play rhythm guitar on an electric. 

The only compromise on the LH-309 is the laminate back and sides, which I don't think you'll miss on a fully-electric guitar. Plus, even guitars like post-war ES-150's and ES-125's sometimes had laminate backs and sides. Combined with a suitable vintage-y amplifier, you've got the easiest way to get a 40's electric guitar tone.

Electric Guitar Amp: Peavey Classic 30 ($649 street) / Vintage 47 Amps Ric-Style Supreme ($698 actual)

 

If you want a cheap, no-nonsense, completely fungible vintage-esque guitar amplifier, you can't really go wrong with a Peavey Classic 30. I played one for many years, and I still bring it out every once in a while when I need more power than an actual vintage amp can provide. However a higher powered amp can be overkill for some settings, leaving the tone too loud, clean and twangy.

One trick to keep it from sounding too clean and twangy is to use the distortion channel with the gain just barely noticeable. You can keep the gain just on the verge of breakup at a variety of volume levels that way. You can probably find a used one on craigslist or ebay for cheap, and it's easily serviceable basically forever. Furthermore, even if it fell off a cliff, you could just as easily buy another that would basically be exactly the same. Similar Fenders, such as the Blues Deluxe are more expensive without really sounding any better. I wouldn't recommend the smaller Fender Blues Junior, because I find them underpowered. If you can spend more, get the suggestion below, or go with a reputable Tweed Deluxe from somebody like Victoria Amps. 

The more authentic choice is the absurdly reasonably-priced Ric-Style Supreme from Vintage 47 amps. Based on a  circuit from a vintage Valco amp from the 40's, Vintage 47 amps use Octal preamp tubes, which makes them the closest thing to a 30's Gibson. The permanent magnet speakers are the only modern concession, though they've been trying to find a way to source field-coil speakers for quite a while. You're not going to find a 40's circuit and 40's cosmetics for under $700 anywhere else. The only caveat is that they are pretty low wattage (which is authentic), and there may be some settings where you may have to mic it. Still, it's the real deal. 

Django-Style Guitar: Gitane GJ-10 ($409 street) / Altamira M30 ($1250 street)

This is another case where if they'd had a reasonably priced options when I was starting, I'd definitely have jumped at them. Saga Cigano line really changed the market providing reasonably priced selmer-style guitars when there really hadn't been any before then. Their budget Gitane line brings a decent guitar into almost anybody's reach. Again, I think this is a case where a proper set up and suitable strings are necessary to make the guitar live up to its potential. Of course, a $400 guitar doesn't sound as good as a Dupont or Favino. However, authentic gypsy guitars have an ugly, nasal quality that allows them to cut through a band, and some modern luthiers tend to try make the guitars sound fuller and prettier, almost attempting to make them more like a dreadnaught. The Gitanes are actually more authentic sounding than some fancy luthier-made guitars.

The set-up is the Altamira line. You can read the full scoop at www.djangobooks.com, which coincidentally is a great place to buy them, these are the same guitars that Dell'Arte brings in from Asia and sells as the Latcho Drom line. From all the sources I've talked to, these are the best buy in gyspy-jazz guitars. 

Sunday
Jan262014

Video: "Tea for Two"

Here's another video of me jamming over some backing tracks, this time "Tea for Two." I don't quite understand the pink cast to the lighting, but like I mentioned, I'm still getting things worked out. 

Again the set up is my ES-150 through the EH-160, and playing over backing tracks the I've published here and that can be found at www.soundcloud.com/campusfive

"Tea for Two" is a tune I first learned to play with the Bonebrake Syncopators. Again, it was another tune that confounded me for a while, until I figured out how to approach it. There was something about the ii-V's that I could only approach from one direction, the most obvious one: arpeggios overtly spelling out the changes. It just never felt good to play over. 

One of the best ways to learn how to approach a tune is to learn how one of your favorite players approaches it, so I learned Charlie Christian's two choruses (from the 1939 Jerry Jerome Jam-Session). After learning Charlie's solo, it totally opened my eyes about the changes. Here's a PDF of the leadsheet: Tea for Two (PDF)

click to enlarge

"Tea for Two" is a basically ABAC, though the last two bars of the second A are slightly different to set up the C. The A and B sections are both a series of ii-V-I's, first in Ab, then in C. What I took from Charlie was that it made much better sense to simplify the ii-V's into just V chords. Even then, he would sometime just play I-chord based blues lick over the V chord.  

Simplifying the ii-V's was especially helpful when the B section comes up. For some reason, transitioning from Ab6 to Dm7 made no sense. But starting on a G7 V-chord lick made sense. Lastly, the key change back to Ab - I always had trouble trying voice lead from the C to the Eb7. Charlie just played one lick over one, and then one lick over the other. Boom. 

The second A section is the same, except for the last two bars: a iim7b5-V7 to Bbm. I find that outlining the three chords is again tilting at windmills. I dimished lick over both the ii and V is easier to deal with. 
Finally the C section is a Bbm vamp (ii) with a Dbm (iv) resolving back the Ab (I) chord - just like in Limehouse Blues, and several other tunes. The last four bars is another I-iii˚-ii-V sequence, like in "Swing that Music" and many other tunes. 

 

Wednesday
Jan222014

Video: "Swing that Music"

As suggested by my friend Kim Clever, I'm going to start doing semi-regular videos, mostly just jamming over some backing tracks, although I'll hopefully be able do some more concerted things as well. I'm still working on getting a permanent  video solution set up - my wife had to shoot these by hand. 

Apologies if you've already seen this via Facebook, but this was taken right around Christmas and it's just me playing my new ES-150 through my EH-160. It was hard to get any kind of useful volume level out of the 160 using my other guitars, but there's something about the response of the pickup that matches the amp perfectly. At least for playing around the house, the volume level is more than enough. I've found it particularly sweet sounding, and especially "Charlie" sounding, when the amp is cranked, but the volume knob is rolled mostly down. 

"Swing That Music" is a tune I never get to play. It's a signature tune for our trumpet player Jim Ziegler, and something he usually reserves to do with his own band, the Swingsations. The times I'd encountered it, I was just stuck with a lead sheet from a hand-written Dixieland Fakebook, and because the way it was written, I always messed up the changes. Specifically, the ABAC structure of the tune is straight forward enough, but the lead sheet was written in a way that made it hard to pickup the C section at the right spot on the page. Suffice it to say, it's not the lead sheet's fault I didn't just learn the tune instead. When I finally got around to learning, I found the changes give a lot of nice stuff to work with. 

The backing track can be found on my soundcloud - www.soundcloud.com/campusfive - along with many other songs. Heres a PDF of the lead sheet: Swing That Music (PDF)

(click to enlarge)

The A section is just two bars each: I - IV7 - I - VI7 (Bb / Eb7 / Bb / G7). Like "Undecided" and "Sing You Sinners" as well as many other tunes, the I-IV7 movement is chance to either play a lick that has a D natural in it against the I chord, and then play something that changes the note to a Db over the IV7 chord. Alternatively it can be nice to play a lick without a D in it over both chords and see how that static lick feels different over each chord. The I - VI7 move is another standard one. I find the melody emphasizing D, A and G over the G7 chord to be particularly telling about how to approach that change. For many years, I seized on the voice leading of Bb notes over the Bb chord to a B natural over the G7 chord, and emphasized that change. However, I don't find that as many well-written song melodies contain that movement, and I think that should be telling. While mechanically running through changes and highlighting the notes that have changed from chord-to-chord technically "works", that doesn't necessarily mean those notes are "pleasing" or make a good sounding melody. 

The B strain is just a II7 - V7 (C7-F7), followed by a I - iii˚ - II7 - V7 turnaround (Bb-Db˚-C7-F7). I've seen the last II chord there be both min7 and dominant7, and realistically you kind of make it work either way, melodically. 

Following the second A strain, is a C strain. Part of what makes the tune interesting, and part of what always messed me up, is that the G7 resolves to a C MAJOR type chord the first time, but to a C MINOR type chord the second time. Also, the changes here move quickly, and if you're thinking mechanically, it can be more difficult than it looks. 

The C changes go ii - iv˚ - I - VI7 (Cm-Eb˚-Bb-G7). While it's written here as an Eb dimished, I think that functionally it's interchangeable with an Eb minor. The ii-iv-I change is a common one found is several tunes, such as Limehouse Blues, China Boy, Avalon. Charlie Christian often made a post of emphasizing iv-I resolutions, even placing them where the band did not play them. You can either highlight the voice leading, in this case G-Gb-F, or avoid those notes and let chords resolve underneath. Either way, watch out for the G7 chord, because even I'd threaded the changes up to that point, I'd usually forget about it, and be emphasizing a Bb note over the G7 by mistake. After the ii-iv-I, it's just a VI7-II7-V7-I back cycle. Anyway, the video is just a single take blowing over the changes. Hope something here is useful. Cheers. 

Monday
Jan202014

The unexpected realities of the new guitar

So, playing-wise, it's all sunshine and unicorns - the new ES-150 is really inspiring, and has made me play guitar so much more than would otherwise. It's great, and moreover, it's special. 

That said, there are some practical concerns I hadn't really thought about, and I hope you may find them useful. 

How many frets?

So it turns out I've been used to 20-22 frets my whole life. Since starting to play swing guitar, I'd been systematically been weening myself off of playing past the 15th fret, because, to my ears, it sounds exceedingly anachronistic. However, there were a couple keys, or a couple licks where I snuck past. However, I discovered while playing "China Boy" that where'd been expecting to be able to hit a high "C" at the 20th fret, that a vintage ES-150 only has 19 frets, so I couldn't resolve the it. There's a video and it's pretty funny to watch me leading up to where the note should have been and then finding it wasn't there. Oops. 

Tuners have come along way 

So, truth be told, the build quality of an ES-150 is more like an L50, and not that of an L5. It wasn't exactly the top of the line, and so the Grover Sta-Tites it came with weren't quite as good as the closed back tuners that came on L5's and other nice Gibsons. Moreover, tuners have come a long way since then, and gear ratios have gotten so much better. I've read that the original tuners are 12:1, which wouldn't surprise me - it can be a little annoying trying to get a string in tune when you can't quite get the tuner to sit in between too sharp and too flat. Since they were pretty common, there are direct drop in replacements with modern ratios. While I could've gone with Grovers with a pretty awesome 18:1 ratio, I took the advice of several good sources and went with Waverlys. While only being 16:1, I've seen too many sources to count that describe them as just the best tuners made. A historic instrument I plan on having for life seems like a good place to invest in the good stuff. I could've saved $100, but I think'll be worth it. They're on on the Fedex truck at moment, so we'll see how things turn out. 

Do you realize how ill fitting most cases are?

Getting the original tweed/airplane stripe case was of course too good to be true, but the ES-150 came with a servicable standard hardshell case, usually known as "Canadian" cases. I was really surprised by how much wiggle room there was, and thus how much the guitar can bounce around inside the case. It wasn't until I flew the guitar to North Carolina using the Case Extreme and the hardshell case that I noticed how mediocre the fit of the hardshell was. While I've had 10 years of succesful travel with the Case Extreme, I was usually flying a guitar in a gig bag, or a hardshell that was designed for that guitar. I started looking at cases, and because of the "off-the-rack" nature of almost all cases, there's usually a significant amount of room. I guess that's fine for something fungible, but for something historic, that just won't do. 

Flight cases are really, really expensive

So I started looking at proper, custom built flight cases. Holy crap are they expensive! Calton cases are basically the old-school, industry standard. However they are $1000 now, and they're really heavy. New cases from Karura and Hoffee are still $1000-$1200, but because they're using Carbon Fiber, they are a great deal lighter. All three are built to order based off extensive measurements of your guitar, so they will fit like a glove, but it may only be a one-trick pony. On the cheaper end, Hiscox's nicest case is a proper flight case, but has off-the-rack fitting. A newer entry, BAM from France, $700, uses a suspension padding system to customize the fit of the off-the-rack cases, but I noticed they try to sell you a $300 case cover, which makes it a flight case. So, is the $700 core case not sufficient? Again, given the historic nature of the guitar, I'm probably going to go with a Hoffee. Go their site - watch the videos - those things are unbelievable. 

The new Reunion Blues Continental Gig Bags are pretty awesome

So they advertise these things by shooting a video where they drop it off a 4 story building. While I'm not confident that would actually work on a guitar like mine. However, the combination of a really well padded-gig bag with a semi-rigid exoskeleton is a real breakthough in gig bags. Each and every facet of the gig bag is well thought out, with the hideable backpack straps being particularly amazing. 

Monday
Jan202014

Good things come to those who wait….

Photo by Jennifer Stockert

So, I've been planning the successor to my Faux-Gibson, Franken-ES150 for a while now. While I've always been a bit amazed at how much it got the "Charlie Chirstian"-vibe, especially for such a humble guitar (modern, asian factory made, all laminate construction, thin bodied), I could tell there was something missing in the tone. I thought the biggest element it lacked was the fullness which I associated with the resonance of a full-depth body. Given the going rate for a real ES-150 with a Charlie Christian pickup, I thought the only thing I could do would be to make a better fake. 

I've had a spare UK-made, notched-blade pickup sitting in a basket beside the couch for over 7 years, just waiting to be put into a guitar. First, I decided it would have to be an old guitar. There was something about the mojo of old wood that something like a modern guitar would just not have. Secondly, because the geometry of the Charlie Christian pick is so specific, I knew there were only a few models that history has proven as viable transplant candidates: L48's and L50's. I've seen many a tale of woe regarding a guitar whose top is caving in because somebody nicked one of the braces one carving the hole for the pickup. 

Constructionally, the closest thing to a 1937-40 Gibson ES-150 is a similar era L50. Aside from the pickup and pickguard, which I assumed I'd have to supply, there are three differences between the two models, 1) ES150's had bound fingerboards, 2) ES150's had a very specific and rare combination tailpiece and jack/combo (although the tailpiece was itself the same), and 3) ES150's had a flat, and not arched, back. I've definitely come across some L50's with flat backs, so there were some made, but they are mostly arched back guitars. I knew the first two were something I'd have to live with, but I was really set on finding a flat backed L50. Since I was going to dig a hole in the top anyway, condition was not that important - a full or partial refinish would be small in comparison to irreparably scarring the top. I had doubts about post-war L50's, partially because I wasn't sure which bracing pattern they had and whether it would be compatible, and partially because the post-war ornamentation on them just looked too much like a 50's Gibson to me (the trapezoid inlays combined with the later headstock shape and logo just screams "Les Paul" to me). I've heard great things about L48's being great candidates, but again, there was something about the later cosmetics that gave me pause. If I was going to do this, I wanted to do it as well as possible. 

Through most of 2013 I watched and let go, any number of suitable L48's and 50's. I even bid on a couple, only to see them sell for tiny amounts more that I'd been willing to spend. By November, I'd really gotten pissed about being burned so many times, and for letting several really excellent candidates slip through my fingers. At one point, I passed on a really excellent playing and sounding L48, only to have one of the guys in the store, who'd been listening to me play it, whip out $1000 in cash and buy it right there and then. 

Even then, once I bought a suitable transplant, there would be the measure of the surgery. Who would do it, how much would it cost, and how quickly would it happen? My friend Joe at www.archtop.com said he could do it, and he even put one together for a friend of mine. It occurs to me now that I hadn't though through a bunch of the details, like what kind of pots I would need (what values were they historically?), what about the fingerboard extension (should the fingerboard be elevated or flush?), should I go for an endpin jack or a side jack? If I'd had Joe do it, I'm guessing he probably could've spotted the issues, and given the appropriate advice. However, the fact remains, I'd be spending a bunch of money, waiting a while, and risking the whole thing - it could turn out mediocre, or bad. There would be no guarantees. It stresses me out just thinking of it. 

Then the unthinkable happened - I found a real one, at a price I could actually afford. I work on-site at my day job, so I never go into the office, but I got called in for a meeting. Since I was in the neighborhood, I happened upon a music store I hadn't been in for years. My recollection was that they carried mostly 60's-80's vintage stuff, with a touch of weird stuff thrown in for novelty, although the owner definitely had a penchant for vintage drums, which I thought would be the real interest in the store. As I was parking I saw somebody leave the store, and drive away. When I got to the door, I see a note that they'll be right back in 10 minutes or, but they left a number if it was an emergency. I waited about 5 minutes, and took a look through the window. I could see a random arch tops, but nothing that jumped at me. Since I had nothing to loose, I texted the number, and just said that I could hang out for about 20 minutes, but just wanted to know if it was going to be longer than that. The guy responded that he'd be right there and he was less than a mile away. I felt bad making the guy run back, because it's not like I was seriously going to buy anything….

As soon as I walked in and looked at the wall where the random arch tops were, I saw it - an ES-150. As soon as I saw, I realized that I'd never actually played one myself. A friend had lent me a 90's Gibson Custom Shop Reissue for a couple weeks, but I'd never actually gotten to mess around with real one. Well, this one played pretty bad - but like most vintage guitars found in the wild, it seemed like it was due to a bad setup and stupidly light gauge strings. Plugging it in, though, and the unique magic of the Charlie Christian pickup was apparent. I must've played the guitar for 20 minutes, really trying to take in the unique quality of the tone.

The price on the tag was well below market rate, or at least the advertised prices of the couple that were currently for sale online. The owner piped up at one point quoting me a price $200 below the sticker - it seemed that since it was nearing Christmas he probably was extra interested in moving some merchandise. After that, he told me that if I paid in cash he would take 20% because he wouldn't have to pay a credit card processing fee. After a little haggling it came down to a figure that I could actually reach. I offered to put some money down so that I could hold it for a couple of days - after all, I'd just had something sold out from under me - and the owner said it'd been sitting there for months, and it wasn't going anywhere. He said he would hold it for me for a couple days anyway.

After checking with the wife, I checked with several other guitar players who've owned one, or have a ton of experience buying vintage guitars, to make sure I wasn't getting taken. After going over some of the important things to look out for, I knew I had to go back the next day. I started off going through all of the key features, which checked out. I even sent some pics to one of the guitar players, who wrote back immediately to buy it. I knew I was going to have to try adjusting the action to get a better idea, and it definitely made some improvement. 

I left to go the bank, and when I came back, I brought in my EH-185 for the final test. Putting the two together it was immediately clear the special magic that comes from combining the two. I took a picture of the pair, and handed the man my money. Each an every time I've played the guitar since, it's been confirmed that I made the right call. 

After a couple days, I was able to take it over to Westwood Music, where Dave Rutchinsky set it up beautifully. For consistency's sake, I went with D'Addario pure nickel 13's rather than the Martin Tony Rice Monel Strings. Since the gauging on the Martins is a little odd, I wanted to go with the more conventional D'Addario's. I'll be trying the Monel Martins soon enough. 

 I ended up recording a couple videos with the new guitar, using my EH-160, which really came alive with the ES-150. I posted them to facebook, but for some reason they were having some trouble uploading to youtube. One of them worked fine, so I'll post it now and hopefully I'll get the rest uploaded soon. Several friends suggested doing a weekly video blog, so I may do that as soon as I get the webcam/audio situation settled. (Also, I quickly figured out that shooting video in portrait mode is not something to do agian)

Wednesday
Dec112013

A Few of My Favorite Things - youtube Edition

In honor of the season, here's a few of the song/videos that are among my absolute favorite recorded musical moments ever. I hope they bring you as much joy and inspiration as they do me. Collecting them like this has made me notice some of the recurring themes, aspects and musicians. 

All Star Jump - The 1941 Metronome All-Stars 

Cootie Williams, Harry James, Ziggy Elman (tp); Jay C. Higginbotham, Tommy Dorsey (tb); Benny Carter , Toots Mondello (as); Coleman Hawkins, Tex Beneke (ts); Benny Goodman (cl); Count Basie (p); Charlie Christian (g); Artie Bernstein (b); Buddy Rich (d); New York, January 16, 1941

Perhaps my favorite recording of all time, "All Star Jump" is something I DJ at almost every opportunity. It's just "One O'Clock Jump" with a different brass shout riff, but what makes this song special is the absurd assemblage of talent present. It's like they cherry picked most of my all of my favorite players and put them on one session. Charlie Christian, Cootie Williams, Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, and Buddy Rich - heavy, man, heavy. Dig the Coleman Hawkins solo, where he sneaks in a riff chorus that he used a couple times on All-Star sessions, which later became the basis for "Feedin' the Bean" which was among a handful of charts the Basie band recorded with Coleman Hawkins (including "920 Special") after Lester young left the band. (Yeah, I know Cootie doesn't take a solo on this one, but he's on the next one too). 

Bugle Call Rag - The 1941 Metronome All-Stars 

Same Band/Date as above

From the other side of the record from "All Star Jump", this "Bugle Call Rag" is basically the same arrangement as the 1936 Benny Goodman studio version, but way more intense. Heard on this tune, but not on the last one are Tommy Dorsey and Cootie Williams (who may just be favorite instrumentalist of all time). All the solos are great, but those out riffs are damn tight and clean. It's like every single one of the brass hits is being played with the same exact mind. And listen to Buddy Rich just driving like a mother and dropping cymbal crashes that serve perfect punctuation, but unlike the post-1945 Rich, I don't think you can say he's overplaying for even a second. I squee a little bit every time I get to those riffs. Squee.

Ring Dem Bells - Lionel Hampton

Cootie Williams (tp); Johnny Hodges (as); Edgar Sampson (bar); Jess Stacy (p); Allen Reuss (g); Billy Taylor (b); Sonny Greer (d); Lionel Hampton (vib); New York, January 18, 1938

Another song that makes me jump from beginning to end, "Ring Dem Bells" is again another all-star session, this time led by Lionel Hampton. Most of Hamp's various all-star sessions from 1937-1940 are solid, and often transcendent. This time the rhythm section is anchored by my favorite rhythm guitarist, Allan Reuss, whom you can hear driving the band. Again, Cootie and Benny Carter are two of my absolute favorite soloists, and add to that famed arranger Edgar Sampson throwing down on bari. Hampton is also one of my favorite vocalists, and his vocal chorus and scat choruses just jam. Lastly, the sequence of background riffs under Hamp's out choruses is a master class in riff-writing and syncopation. EDITE The first youtube clip I linked to for this song was clearly too slow - one of the consequences of doing much of this writing in places I can be listening to the sound at the same time. The current one is the correct tempo.

Jammin' the Blues - Lester Young, et. al.

Lester Young (ts); Harry Sweets Edison (tp); Illinois Jacquet (ts); Barney Kessel (g); Marlowe Morris (p); Red Callendar (b); Sid Catlett (d); Jo Jones (d)

Perhaps the single greatest influence on the sound and aesthetic of the Campus Five, "Jammin' the Blues" features all of the things that I believe in most: riffs, interaction, and syncopation. Lester Young is in fine form, followed by Barney Kessel, and then Sweets Edison. I love the interplay between Sweets and drummer Sid Catlett. Of course, it's Jo Jones who is depicted on screen, but this was not the case on the original recording. Because of scheduling problems during filming, the order was swapped, and so when you see Sid on screen, it's Jo Jones you hear, and vise versa. Of course the song concludes with Illinois Jacquet taking a solo over the tom-toms and then the syncopated riff with Illinois still riding over top. Squee!

Dickie's Dream - Count Basie

Earl Warren (as); Coleman Hawkins (ts); Ben Webster (ts); Gerry Mulligan (bs); Roy Eldridge (tp); Joe Wilder (tp); Emmett Berry(tp); Joe Newman(tp); Dickie Wells (tb); Vic Dickenson (tb); Freddie Green (g); Count Basie (p);  Jo Jones (d); 1957

Continuing the theme of all-star blowing sessions, this latter-day program features an old-testament sound during new-testament times. Jo Jones returns for the session, and there seem to be no signs of the lanky, behind-the-beat groovy sound of the then current Basie band. All the soloists are solidy swinging, and the rhythm is heavy. Jo Jones' interactive playing is such a great catalyst. Personal favorite moments are where Billie Holiday is seen hanging out in the background, especially when she starts talking to Basie during his solo, and during the way Jo Jones hits those heavy accents during the shout chorus but looks so elegant and smooth doing it. 

Stealin Apples - Lionel Hampton

Lionel Hampton (vib); Benny Goodman aka Professor Mandelbrot (cl); Mel Powell (p); Louie Bellson (d); unknown rest

The last of these is legitimately funny beside swinging really hard. Repetition, call-and-response interaction, and syncopation are all themes that have popped up in each of the previous examples, and so too here. From the movie "A Song is Born", Hamp is attempting to demonstrate an example of small-group jazz, but is short his regular clarinet player. The professor documenting this sound goes to fetch his conservatory colleague, the icky Professor Mandelbrot to fill in. Clearly Hamp is nonplused to try to teach this square to swing, but of course, we can see it's really Benny Goodman with a terrible mustache, and the Professor very quickly gets the hang of it. Once the tune is cooking it's full of my favorite things: trading soloists, call and response, riffs, big rhythmic accents. It always brings a smile to my face. 

Wednesday
Nov132013

Swing Guitar Blog Xmas Gift Guide

Since it's almost that time of year, here's a list of some great gear, music and books. The books and music are essential basics, and the gear is bunch of favorite stuff. Everything can be found on amazon.com for easy Christmas shopping. Enjoy. 

GEAR / ACCESSORIES



K & M Heli Multi-Purpose Instrument Stand
I think these fold-flat guitar stands are the best around. They are very light, and since they fold flat, they take up less space. Lastly, and most importantly, they are the most sturdy and supportive stands I've seen.


Snark SN-8(B) Super Tight All Instrument Tuner
For under $20, Snark tuners are plenty accurate, and more sturdy than the generic "Intelli" ones I used before. You'll probably lose it before you break it, and while it's not as accurate as strobe tuner (Peterson SC-1 Strobo Series StroboClip Guitar Tuner ), it's also not $70. And with how often I lose my tuners, I can't afford to spend that much one. That said, it's well worth buying the $10 Peterson Strobe Tuner App for iOS for home use (https://itunes.apple.com/app/istrobosoft/id308296029?mt=8)


Rode Microphones NT3 Hypercardioid Condenser Microphone
This is the microphone I've been using life for probably 8 years. It sounds really fantastic, and because it's internally shock-mounted, its far less susceptible to bumps and stage rumble. Also, because it has it's own 9V battery, it can be used where phantom power is not available. It sounds good on almost anything, and, in a pinch, I've used it pick up my entire big band when a promoter didn't bring any mics to a gig once.


George L's Pre-Made .225 Cable 10 Foot (10 Foot)
Although it's sometimes an afterthought, a bad cable can ruin your tone. While you can spend hundreds of dollars buying boutique cable, Guitar Player magazine did a huge shootout, and this reasonably priced cable kept up with even the most expensive cables. I recently picked one up and it sounds incredibly natural. If you need to fatten-up your guitar tone, another winner is the Spectraflex Fatso Flex Right Angle Instrument Cable, 10 Foot, Tweed.


C2G / Cables to Go 14719 18 AWG Universal Power Cord (IEC320C13 to NEMA 515P) Black (25 Feet/7.62 Meters)
One of my favorite finds of the last year, these cables are the perfect replacement for any cable that uses the standard PC power jack. Those cables are usually way too short - the cable that came with our JBL Eon PA speakers barely reaches the ground when the speakers are up on a speaker stand, necessitating an extra extension chord. Great for guitar amps with detachable cables, powered PA speakers, and some mixers.


Manhasset M52C Voyager Concertina Stand
Manhassets are the gold standard of professional music stands. Because they are foldable and detachable, the Voyagers are the most practical. The Concertina version is the short-to-medium one, which is ideal for sitting while playing rhythm guitar. The regular one is fine for standing, but when you're sitting it keeps the audience from seeing most of you. Also, the perfect accessory is the Manhasset Voyager Totebag, so you can keep the shelf and base from getting separated.

STRINGS



Martin MSP4200 SP Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Medium
My favorite acoustic strings are great sounding and long lasting. After some testing, I'd skip the coated version. They don't sound great, and are expensive enough that I'd just rather change my strings more often. You may also find the Martin Tony Rice Monel Strings sound good on your guitar, but might not sound good on others. While I think there is something to using Monel, I think the fullness and volume of bronze is more practical.


D'Addario EPN22 Pure Nickel Electric Guitar Strings, Jazz Medium, 13-55
My favorite general electric guitar string. Unless you have a pickup/amp combo that can benefit from the imbalance between the wound and unwound strings, I'd skip the new Martin Tony Rice Monel Strings for electric.


Savarez 1610MF Argentine Acoustic Jazz Guitar Strings, High Tension Ball End
The only serious choice for Gypsy Jazz Guitar strings. Every other gypsy jazz string is a mediocre copy. At times plagued by consistency issue, I haven't had any problems with them for a couple years.

BOOKS


Swing and Big Band Guitar: Four-To-The Bar Comping in the Style of Freddie Green
Although it's description of the sound and time-feel of rhythm guitar is incorrect, the chord shapes and voice-leading lessons are the best available resource on swing rhythm guitar. While I argue that 1930's-40's Freddie Green


Mel Bay Swing to Bop: The Music of Charlie Christian
While there are a ton of Charlie Christian transcription books, and most of those have tab, this is still the essential book. It has by far the most tunes/versions transcribed, and Stan Ayeroff's transcriptions are flawless. 


Mel Bay's Music of Django Reinhardt
Again, Stan Ayeroff does a fantastic job - defintely the largest collection of transcribed Django solos. 



Mel Bay Masters of the Plectrum Guitar
For Swing-Era Chord Melody playing, this is probably the best resource. The Carl Kress and George M. Smith tunes are very much orchestrated pieces, but the chord shapes and patterns are great ideas for chord-melody soloing. 

MUSIC


Hittin' on All Six (A History of Jazz Guitar)
An essential, concise history of Jazz Guitar on 4 CD's. Everything from the earliest jazz guitar from Eddie Lang anf Lonnie Johnson, to the second generation of players, Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, George Van Eps, Allan Reuss, and all of the other rhythm/chordal players, to Charlie Christian and the early electric players. The fourth disc is mostly bop, but the first three are filled with essential playing. 


The Genius Of The Electric Guitar
Not only is this a convenient packaging of everything Charlie Christian recorded in studio with Benny Goodman, but it's also a fantastic box set. The liner notes are fascinating and the discographical info is exhuastive. Lastly, the fact that the box looks like an EH-150 amp is so awesome. 


Swing to Bop: Guitars in Flight 1939-1947
Another collection of guitar rareities, there's several tunes on this disc that aren't found on other collections. Specifically the Mary Osbourne version of "Rose Room" slays me, as does the Carl Kress/Tony Mattola duet on "Davenport Blues" and all of the George Barnes tunes, and lastly the two early Les Paul tunes. 


Guitar Rarities, Vol. 1: 1934-46


Guitar Rarities 2
Both collections feature mostly chordal style playing along with some acoustic single note playing. Most of this stuff is in between the influence of Lang/Kress/McDonough, but before the Charlie Christian electric revolution. 


The Engine Room: A History of Jazz Drumming from Storyville to 52nd Street
I suppose it's odd put a history of jazz drumming on a guitar blog, but understanding the history and evolution of jazz is essential for understanding the guitar's role in various jazz styles. This collection draws from so many different bands and players that it serves a great survey of jazz styles and evolution, without being so overly focused on "hits" or otherwise standard showings on jazz history sets. 

Tuesday
Sep242013

James Chirillo - Rhythm Guitar Videos for Essentially Ellington

Essentially Ellington is a program from Jazz at Lincoln Center that uses traditional swing-era and pre-swing-era big-band jazz as teaching tools for high school jazz students. I very much appreciate this approach because I feel the main problem with contemporary jazz pedagogy is skipping over hot jazz and swing, and jumping in right at Charlie Parker. I feel that this tends to breed soloists who can thread mechanical lines through complex chord changes, but because they aren't taught to simply play a melody, find themselves confounded by four bars of the same chord. But that's another article....

James Chirillo, a New York-based guitarist, is featured in several video lessons put up by Essentially Ellington specifically dealing with playing rhythm guitar in traditional big bands. Several of the points mentioned are things I've been advocating, but I've never seen any other video or lesson mention. Specifically, James mentions emphasizing beats 1 and 3, instead of 2 and 4, and relates this to the fact that swing music was dance music.

Ah! Music to my ears. Preach, brother! 

Further, in the next video he talks about the need to use an acoustic archtop specifically, and how to maximize the projection of said archtop by proper set up, strings, picks and especially posture. I've written on each of these points, and I must again agree entirely. 

Lastly, he talks about compensating when using an electric guitar for rhythm. He also mentions some of the slightly more-modern rhythm playing of electric players like Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis in the context of the Oscar Peterson trio, and how they might have voiced and accented things differently. 

To be perfectly honest, when I saw this video posted by my friend, drummer/dancer Victor Celania (of the newly-formed Snorky's Rhythm Kings), I was expecting yet another worthless video that would completely miss the acoustic character of swing rhythm guitar, and even more importantly the dance-beat conception of the rhythm section. But, boy was I surprised when I saw that they were perhaps the best videos on rhythm guitar on youtube. Perhaps their only flaw is that he doesn't play even more.  

Then again, looking at Chirillo's resume, I shouldn't have been surprised: he played in Benny Goodman's last band (along with Jonathan Stout Orchestra and Rhythmbusters member and frequent Campus Five guest Dan Barrett (www.blueswing.com)), and he's frequently shown playing on Michael Steinman's Jazz Lives Blog along with many of today's leading trad-jazz luminaries. Great stuff from a great player. Cheers to James Chirillo. 

Wednesday
Sep182013

2-for-1 on Martin SP Strings at Strings and Beyond

Even after my research into guitar string composition and my re-discovery of Monel strings, I still find that Martin SP 80/20 bronze strings are the best sounding strings for my acoustic archtop, an Eastman 805. After trying several brands, I've found that Martin SP 80/20s have an excellent lifespan, and the best sound for the guitar. And now they are on sale at www.stringsandbeyond.com for 2-for-1 on their already excellent price. Since they are only $4.98 to begin with, that brings them down to $2.49/set - it's a ridiculous price, and I just stocked up. 

While I still don't have the full picture of the introduction of bronze strings, I've drawn the inference that they were introduced in the 1930's to create a fuller and louder sound for "orchestra" archtop guitars and the newly introduced dreadnaught and jumbo flat tops. The D'Addario website mentions that "80/20 Bronze, commonly referred to as brass, is the original acoustic string alloy selected by John D'Addario Sr. and John D'Angelico in the 1930s." This leads me to believe that 80/20 was at least relatively close in time to the swing era, and given that phosphor bronze is 92/8, and was developed later to make a brighter, longer lasting string, I would posit that earlier bronzes may have been going the other direction. 80/20 bronze is the warmest bronze alloy currently being used, so I'd say it's the closest thing to the bronze used in the 30's, if not the same. 

Having experiemented with the Martin SP "Lifespan" coated strings, I have found that they do not sound as good intitially, and even if they did, they do not last enough longer to warrant their increased price. Further given the ridiculous sale on at www.stringsandbeyond.com, they are cheap enough to replace regularly. So, it's Martin SP 80/20's for me. 

Sunday
Sep152013

Playalong Batch 3, part 1 - "Love Me or Leave Me" and "Blue Skies"

Here a huge update: 17 more tunes as playalong tracks. As before, most are 3 choruses long to allow you to play the melody, take a chorus, and then take a whole new chorus. On the two slower ballads, "Stardust" and "I'm Confessin'", I've only played two choruses. Traditionally, because the tunes were slower, recordings are often only two choruses long. Charlie Christian's famous 1939 chord-melody recording on "Startdust" is the second and last chorus of that recording. 

Since 17 songs would involve a lot of explanation, I'll split this up into a bunch of parts. All of the sounds are up on sound cloud, but I'll embed them in each new post as I go through them. 
First Up, two very similar tunes, "Love Me or Leave Me" and "Blue Skies." Both tunes are similarly constructed, and are what I can "minor/major" tunes - meaning part of the tune is in minor, before shifting to the relative major. Although keys can very, especially for vocalists, both tunes are often played in Fm/Ab. "I've Found a New Baby" is another example of a "minor/major" tune. 

"Love Me or Leave Me" uses a "minor vamp" cycle over the first four bars, before going to the relative major for a I-vi-ii-V cycle. While the two chord cycles look like a lot of changes to run through, both cycles are basically diatonic, so you can generally approach the tune as four bars of F minor, followed by four bars of Ab major. The bridge is a pretty standard sequence. 

Rhythm Guitar - Tab
Lead Sheet

"Blues Skies" is similarly complex looking tune, but is similarly simple underneath. The first four bars is basically a minor key descending line cliche: essentially an F minor with a chromatic descending F to E to Eb to D. And then, again the next four is just a return to the relative major, Ab, with a I-vi-ii-V vamp (the Ao diminished chord is just a diminished passing chord/subsitution for the vi chord).

One of the most confusing thing is that same grouping of notes can be described multiple ways - often in an attempt to "simplify" things. For example, an Fm7 (F, Ab, C, Eb) can also be described as a Ab6 chord (Ab, C, Eb, F) - and an Fm6 (F, Ab, C, D) is also a Dm7b5 (D, F, Ab, C). Finally the second chord Fm/maj7 (aka Fm/E - F, Ab, C, E) is sometimes substituted with a C+7 (C, E, G#/Ab, Bb) - because three of the four notes in each chord are the same, they can serve the same functional role. This can lead to the progression of Fm->Fm/E->Fm7/Eb->Fm6/D being written as Fm->C+7->Ab6->Dm7b5, which does not make any functional sense. While simplifying the chords might make it easier for a piano player to finger simplified chords without thinking of the real functional roles, it only serves to obscure the real harmonic content and movement for a jazz improviser. 

Finally, the last chord of the first four bars (Dbm6) is basically chromatic passing chord, and serves no functional purpose. It's just pretty voice-leading completing the F->E->Eb->D->Db->C (in the Ab6 chord in the 5th bar).

With regard to the bridge, the change here is making a melody over the I-iv minor changes without sounding mechanical. One trick is to realize the the iv minor chord requires just a slight alteration to the notes in the key. By simply avoiding the major 6th, F natural, over the Dbm6 chords, or altering them to an Fb (aka E natural), but still remaining otherwise in Ab, you can focus on playing a melody, rather than mechanically running the changes.  

Rhythm Guitar - Tab
Lead Sheet - old school or "functional changes"
Lead Sheet  - modern changes

 
Tuesday
Aug062013

Strings and Beyond - 15% off Accessories: i.e. WEGEN PICKS!

My favorite online string retailer www.stringsandbeyond.com is having a sale on accessories, and given that they are one of the few online sources for Wegen and John Pearse picks, that means 15% off picks that should be relevant to your interests.

From www.stringsandbeyond.com: "Enter coupon code 'accessorize' during order checkout..."

So save 15% for accessories all week long. I definitely would recommend checking out the Wegen Line as well as the John Pearse Fast Turtles. Wegens are pretty standard in the gypsy jazz world, and the JP Turtles are another great choice (though, I recommending putting a bit of bevel on them with a nail file).

While you're there, check out their selection of my personal favorites: Martin SP 80/20's, D'Addario Pure Nickel, and Salvarez Argentines, and the new Martin Tony Rice Monel strings. 

Thursday
May162013

Guitar String Composition and Swing Guitar

Because Swing Guitar straddles the worlds of both acoustic and electric instruments, the choice of string has been an open question since I began playing Swing Guitar. At times I tried to "split the difference" between, but I found it was usually better to treat an instrument as either purely electric or acoustic, since electricifing an archtop so often leads to it loosing the essential acoustic character needed for proper swing rhythm guitar. 

I recently got a message from Glenn Crytzer who again inquired about what strings to use, which propeled me on a quest to figure out once and for all about the history of guitar strings as it relates to what Swing and Early Jazz guitarists would have used. Here are the results of that research. 

Strings Today

Electric vs. Acoustic = Nickel vs. Bronze

Today, guitar strings comes in an almost endless variety, but most are one of two basic flavors: "acoustic" bronze-wound and "electric" nickel-wound. Almost all strings have the same steel core wire, and the difference is the wire wrapped around it, though there is sometimes variation in the shape or size of the core wire. The plain, unwound strings (usually the high E and B, and on very light sets, the G) on bronze and nickel sets are generally the same. 

While you can technically use either string on either guitar, the use of magnetic pickups on electric guitars require a string that is ferromagnetically responsive, and nickel-wound strings and unwound plain steel strings are much more responsive than bronze strings. Besides bronze wound being very inefficient, the difference in metals causes there to be a staggering volume difference between the plain, unwound strings and the  wound strings. Bronze strings, while not being as magnetically responsive, do sound much louder acoustically. They are both fuller and zing-ier sounding than nickel-wound. 

Nickel and Bronze Varieties

Bronze-wound strings come in two main flavors: 80/20 bronze and Phosphor Bronze. Phosphor Bronze is much newer, having been introduced in the 1970's as a brighter, longer lasting string. Nickel-wound strings come into two main flavors as well: so-called "pure nickel" and nickel-wound (which are nickel-plated steel wrap). Nickel-plated steel strings were introduced in the 60's as nickel prices rose, and the brighter sound of nickel-wounds was desired. 80/20 bronze and "pure-nickel" are generally considered the more "vintage" choice by mainstream guitar culture, though really that only means 1950's or 1960's vintage.

Flat = Jazz?

One other variation worth mentioning at this point is "flat-wound" strings. Flats are the darkest, and mellowest-sounding strings tonally, and because they have a flattened playing surface, they make almost no finger noise. The main varieties of these are what I think of as "true-flats" or "ribbon-wound", where a flattened strip of metal is wound around the core wire, and "ground-wound" where a round string is wrapped and then the outer surface is shaved or ground down to a flat surface. Ribbon-wound strings are the darkest, with ground-wounds being a step brighter, but still mellower than round-wounds. 

Flat wounds are often thought of as "jazz" strings, though in reality that means the "jazz" of the 50's and 60's. As I mentioned in a previous article, legendary studio guitarist Bob Bain related to me that flat wounds were not really used until the mid-50's. La Bella claims to have introduced flats in 1940, but I'm guessing they weren't commonly adopted until the 1950's. Flat wound strings have the distinctive sound of post-bop and hard-bop guitarists like Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, etc., which is something distinctly different than swing-era electric players like Charlie Christian and early Barney Kessel. I don’t recommend flats for swing-era playing. 

Strings Types and Swing Music

So the question remains, “what were they using before 1950, and more importantly what were they using during the swing-era?” That question has been difficult to answer, and I after some research and some theories.

Pre-History of Strings, part 1: "Steel"

As best as I can tell, metal musical instrument strings go back hundreds of years. They came to guitar in the middle of the 19th Century. During this time there was no particular standardization. Originally steel strings were oiled to retard oxidation, and other coatings were tried before plating came into the picture. Gauges were not specified, and you basically had the choice of brands. 

For figuring out the timing of advancements and product introductions, the best resource I found was a collection of manufacturer’s catalogs at www.acousticmusic.org, all of which were available for download as PDFs. There were quite a few discussions in various forums asking many the same questions, but this one <http://theunofficialmartinguitarforum.yuku.com/topic/1743#.UV0JXKsjqXQ > from the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum was especially helpful. The extensive collection of string packages provided some missing information.

In the 1903 Gibson catalog, the only steel strings were listed as "silver wound."  Just judging from the catalog, it is hard to determine whether these were actually silver-plated, or whether they were "silvered" with some other alloy or method. Many of the string packages shown on the martin guitar forum, however, do specifically say "silver-plated", and judging from the packaging art and lettering, these could easily be from the era the teens and 1930's. Thus, I would bet that "silver wound" meant "silver-plated steel."

The 1930 Martin catalog only lists "wound steel" (with wound B and G), but with no further description of composition. The 1934 Epiphone catalog also offers no clue to composition beyond "steel."

Monel: The missing link

Before being my research, I had never heard of a metal called "Monel," let alone did I realize that it was probably the dominant guitar string alloy for a period in the 1930's and perhaps into the 40's. According to wikipedia (I'll do some legit metallurgical research eventually), monel is a nickel-copper alloy is commonly used in applications with highly corrosive environments. Monel guitar strings were produced from the 1920’s up until the 1970’s, and new old stocks had mostly run out years ago. However, Martin recently announced that they are bringing back monel strings for a signature set for bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice. I just ordered a couple sets, and will report back as soon as I can.

The 1930-1931 Gibson catalog introduces "Mona-Steel" strings, which was Gibson's name for monel. No other steel-string choices are listed. 

The 1934 Gibson catalog, offers only mona-steels, but does offer the option of "hand polishing." There is some conjecture on various bulletin boards that this is a reference to flat-wound strings, or at least an early "ground-wound" string. I do not think that is the case. Rather, I am guessing that the manufacturing standards of the day may have led the strings to be a bit "fuzzy" and perhaps a bit poorly finished. There are pictures of Mapes brand strings from the 30's that came with a "sepam cloth" to polish the strings. Sepam cloth is something like an emery board. The 1944 Epiphone catalog mentions strings can be "hand-polished" to "reduce swish." Reducing finger noise may also have been a concern. However, I would argue that while "hand-polishing" may have rounded off the gullys between round wrappings ever so slightly, they are not "flats" as we think of them. Also, given how much material would have to be removed to make them flat, I doubt that could really be achieved with something like an emery board or by hand. 

In comes Bronze

So far, the earliest reference to "bronze wound strings" that I've come across is in the 1935 Martin catalog. Both Monel and bronze sets are listed, with bronze being listed as being "heavy gauge" and wound on a hexagonal core, and the monel listed as being "medium gauge" and wound on a "piano core," which I'd assume is a round core. Gibson's 1937 catalog also adds bronze-wound to the line up, along with the mona-steels. It isn't until after the impact of the electric guitar that there is any text describing the qualities of monel vs. bronze. 

Electric vs. Acoustic

The 1937 Gibson catalog is also very important because it introduces Gibson's electric line of guitars, banjos, mandolins and hawaiian steel guitars. Gibson's first electric guitar pickup, usually known as a "Charlie Christian" pickup, had an issue with the B string being significantly louder than the rest. By 1938 Gibson added a notch in the pickup under the B string to try to equalize the difference. Finally, in 1939 Gibson introduced a CC pickup with individual pole pieces on the ES-250. In 1937, the Gibson catalog simply directs electric guitar users to use a set of monel strings. But consider that, at that time, the first electric jazz guitar solo had yet to be recorded. 

There was a significant amount of experimentation and innovation in those earliest years of the electric guitar. The next two catalogs in the collection show major changes. The 1942 Gibson catalog finally differentiates electric strings from acoustics. Mona-Steel and Bronze are both offered without reference to "acoustic", but the newest addition is Mona-electric strings. The catalog only says that they are specifically selected gauges of mona-steel. Presumably monel was still used for electrics, but the gauges had been altered to deal with the "hot B string" problem. 

There is a particularly telling paragraph in that 1942 catalog: 
"Our Mona-Steel Strings are noted for their non-tarnishing long wearing qualities, and are better suited for electrics. The bronze strings have that clear tone of soft brilliancy, which is preferred by many especially in orchestra work. Light gauges are more responsive and ideal for light, fast picking; while heave gauges are designed for the orchestra players who need volume and solidity."

The difference becomes codified

The 1942 Gibson catalog mentions that heavy-gauge bronze strings are standard equipment on Super 400's and L-5's. By the 1944 Epiphone Catalog the split between electric strings and acoustic strings appears to have solidified. It offers  "special bronze wire covered" strings as well as now specifically electric "Electar" strings of "magnetic materials." 

After this my resources dried up. I can't find any catalogs until 1950, when Gibson was offering both generically "Guitar" (presumably monel) and "Bronze Guitar Strings", as well as specifically electric strings. Again, there is a lapse in the resources until 1959, when the Fender Catalog describes their electric guitar strings (as they only made electric instruments then) as "pure nickel-wound." 

Conclusions

Based the catalogs, I would feel comfortable making a couple of inferences. 
  • I would bet that someone like Eddie Lang was using a silver-plated steel string until the introduction of monel and perhaps adopted monel until he died in 1934. 
  • I'm guessing that Monel strings were probably used by the second generation of guys, like Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, George Van Eps, though they may have switched to bronze-wound when they were introduced. 
  • The swing-era rhythm players probably adopted bronze-wound strings because of their greater volume, although it's possible some stuck with monel strings. 
  • Because I can't find any references to specifically electric strings until 1942, I would bet that Charlie Christian probably used mona-steel strings. 

Epilogue 

I bought a couple sets of Martin's Tony Rice Signature Monel Strings. I tried them on both my Eastman 805 and my Franken-ES150. The verdict is still out, because I haven't had a chance to trade back and forth and to play them on very many gigs. Lately I feel like I've gotten burned by forgetting that how something sounds alone is not necessarily how it sounds in the context of an ensemble. 

On the acoustic, they definitely had a distinct sound as compared to either bronze or nickel. They were bright and cutting without being shrill. They seemed to have increased mids and upper mids, with somewhat reduced bass as compared to bronze. On the electric, there is some difference between the wound and unwound, but I think it maybe a beneficial one. The low strings tend to be very bassy and distort my EH-185 far more readily than the unwound strings. I think the lesser magnetic response may actually serve to balance the guitar better when jumping from rhythm guitar (which I've already written how much I dislike electric rhythm guitar) and solos. 
Lastly, the gauges for this signature set are a bit different than a normal set of 13's, with the middle strings running slightly lighter. Some of the strings seem to flexible, and seem to "give" when hit hard rather than bouncing back. Only more time an experimentation will tell.

Saturday
Dec222012

Another batch of Play-a-long tracks

Here's another batch of play-a-long tracks for you, along with a couple quick takes on the leads. 
I may have suggested this before, but I highly recommend learning the melody and playing it over the first chorus before taking a solo chorus. I think it puts one in a better frame of mind for playing melodically, and mechanically. It's one thing to run through some stock licks and arpeggios over some changes, but it's another play something melodic, even if it uses those same devices. 

These tracks were recorded with the usual gear, but I've messing around with even more new picks. I'm really digging the JB picks faux-Tortise picks. The 1.2mm NT pick sounds awesome on my acoustic, and I'm digging the standard 1.0mm for the electric. After a couple more gigs, I should have a good idea, but these are looking really, really promising, and they're way more reasonably priced than a lot of the other options. 

Six Appeal

A great medium tempo minor key tune, as played by Goodman and Christian in 1940. It's a slightly hipper take on the much older tune, "My Daddy Rocks Me."  Take a look at the chord forms, because they are good examples of minor line cliche's and accompanying voice leading. 

Leadsheet PDF (with Goodman melody transcribed exactly)
Changes PDF (with Tab) 

PLAY-A-LONG:

Undecided

I uploaded a sheet with the chord forms a while back. It's a pretty simple tune, but hitting the changes in a way that swings is the challenge. I took pass over the changes with both my electric and acoustic, just to see how I would change my attack based on the instrument. 

PLAY-A-LONG
Undecided - ACOUSTIC
Undecided - ELECTRIC

Dinah 

Another very simple tune, but an essential one. The A section forms the basis of many other tunes, "Jumpin' at the Woodside" being just one example. The bridge is a unique one, but again essential. 

PLAY-A-LONG
Dinah - ELECTRIC

 

Monday
Dec102012

Wegen Picks 10% off - www.stringsandbeyond.com

Hey, this ought to be relevant to your interests: www.stringsandbeyond.com has their stock of Wegen picks on sale for 10%. Wegen picks are basically the same price anywhere you get them, and I've never seen them on sale otherwise. No code needed, just check it out here: http://www.stringsandbeyond.com/9thday.html

Tuesday
Dec042012

Rhythmic Variation vs. the Four-Beat Ideal (tales of Careless Loving)

In August I got an email from a reader, and I quickly cranked out an article sort-of answering his question. Last weekend I played a gig (with my friends, the Careless Lovers that really gave me a better perspective on this issue. With that perspective, I wanted to take another crack at the subject and start over from scratch. 

YoungWoo Joh, from Orlando, FL recently sent me an email asking me about the interaction of rhythm guitar and piano. Specifically, he was wondering how not having a piano would, could or should change what he does as a rhythm guitarist in his band (the instrumentation of which is clarinet/sax, trombone, guitar, bass, washboard and vocals). Here's his original question:

 "I had originally just been chunking through the changes (a la 4/4 rhythm guitar), but I've come to feel that lacking both a piano and third horn makes it feel like something is missing. In response to this, I've made my (guitar) playing a little more rhythmically creative, though always going back to the 4/4 as the basic rhythm. In addition to that, I've slowly been working up my chordal vocabulary (inversions and extensions) in order to imply movement and for the occasional fill.

The thing is that all of this is sort of being done experimentally, and I was hoping you could give me a little more insight on what else I could be doing on guitar to help fill out the sound." 

Swing = Four-Beat

The four-beat pulse is the primary mission of the rhythm guitarist in Swing-era jazz. I've argued in the past that the firm foundations of that pulse in the rhythm section are what makes syncopation in the rest of the band really POP and stand out in relief. Thus, serving the beat is paramount. 

I find that stray 8th notes and additional shuffling tends to muddy the four-beat pulse. Therefore, I try to avoid them as much as possible. In my own playing, I am almost always in a Swing-Era band with a full rhythm section of guitar, bass, piano and drums. In such settings, I find there rarely to be much excuse or justification for messing with the pulse. Most often, when I would see someone adding rhythmic variation it seemed to be due to a lack of knowledge or understanding or experience in the genre. Excessive shuffling 8th notes often seem hack-y to me.  

To be fair, I do occasionally add 8th notes just as a product of natural movement, and I don't think it is possible or advisable to literally only play quarter notes. But that quarter note pulse is still the goal.

Careless Loving

Getting out of my standard 4-piece rhythm section was very illustrative on this subject. I was subbing on guitar our good friends from Seattle, the Careless Lovers, whose instrumentation is very similar to YoungWoo's situation: trombone, trumpet, guitar, bass, and drums. Because there's no piano or second guitar, there is no second chordal instrument to comment while the other holds down the rhythm, and there's nothing but a bass line beneath a guitar solo. It's a more challenging role compared to simply playing 4-to-the-bar rhythm. Also worth mentioning, the first night of the gig we played as a quartet, sans drums, and then adding drums the next two nights. 

While I had been very idealistic about eschewing any rhythmic variation, the gig gave me a good practical appreciation for the value of doing more than just 4-to-the-bar. I found myself naturally adding little accents here and there the first night, but I felt even more free the next two nights. I rarely changed my basic rhythm pattern from 4-to-the-bar, I did accents here and there. Even more so, I found myself playing melodic figures to fill holes or answer back to the horns. I usually just threw in a single-note figure, although I would use Reuss-style block-chord figures as well. 

A good example would be the pauses in the melody of first 8 bars of "Blue Turning Grey Over You" (here played by Louis Armstrong). Bars 4 and 8 are pretty empty, leaving a nice big whole ripe for filling. I found myself waiting for the pauses and filing it with a triplet run on the bass strings. 

One of the reasons I felt so free to play answer phrases, which necessarily requires to stop playing rhythm for that moment, was that the other members of the rhythm section were filling out the beat so well. Brett Nakashima's bass playing so solidly set the pulse that I was able to branch out. It was even more true when drummer Hal Smith was added in. Because Brett and Hal covered the beat so firmly and unambiguously, I was able to throw in single-note answer figure without the rhythm breaking down. If your rhythm section isn't supporting you enough, you won't be able to do as much. 

Of course, discretion is the better part of valor, and that means there's a practical limit to how much you can add without completely abandoning one's role as a rhythm guitarist. Like swiss cheese, if you make too many holes, the whole thing will fall apart. 

The O.G. - Eddie Lang

What I realized later is that I was just subconsciously doing my best Eddie Lang impersonation. I'll be the first to admit that while I really steep myself in Swing-era music and playing, my knowledge of pre-swing jazz is not nearly as encyclopedic. Of course I've listened to all of the important recordings and players, but I'm just not nearly as steeped in it (For example, I know exactly who is each Goodman sextet session or when the important sidemen joined or left the old testament Basie band, I can't say the same about Bix or Trumbauer.) 

I've listened to the Lang/Kress duets, the Lang/Lonnie Johnson duets, and the Lang/Venuti duets, but I've not really listened (consciously, at least) to a lot of full band recordings with Eddie Lang, especially not ones where was clearly audible. Then, I found this: "I'm Coming Virginia" from 1927 by the Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra. You can hear Eddie is all over the place - there is almost none of what we think of as 4-to-the-bar rhythm guitar.

Evolution = Specialization

As jazz evolved, it streamlined. The free-wheeling multi-horn group improvised ensembles common in pre-swing fell away, being replaced by arranged ensembles. Likewise, the rhythm section became streamlined as well. The roles of each member of the rhythm section became more and more defined, and specialized. The flourishes of Lang were mostly covered by the right hand of the piano, and as the Swing-era went on, the left hand of piano became de-emphasized and lightened as the rhythm guitar took that role. 

Back to YoungWoo

For your situation, given it's similarity in instrumentation to the Careless Lovers, you'll probably be well served by looking to Eddie Lang for inspiration. Single note figures and runs will help to comment back on the musical action. You probably shouldn't go for something as busy as Lang's playing on "…Virginia", you could easily borrow some of Lang's ideas. As far as soloing, Reuss-style block-chords will fill up the most space, but you'll probably find just adding some chords in between single note licks helpful. 

But, I would also argue the more time you spend breaking from four-to-the-bar rhythm, the less "Swing" the result. Given that you've got a washboard, I'm guessing your comfortable with a slightly more early-jazz vibe.

Alright, I hope that is somewhat more helpful than my first pass at the subject. Cheers!